Final Audio Design FI-DC1601SB Review (Or Rather, Incoherent Ramblings)
FINAL AUDIO DESIGN FI-DC1601SB REVIEW (OR RATHER, INCOHERENT RAMBLINGS)
Usually I take notes for a review and then try putting them in a coherent, easy to follow structure. That however doesn’t work with non-isolating, not-quite-portable dynamic driver IEMs with a scary frequency response that are sold for 79,800 Yen (880 USD). Rationality just doesn’t apply here – especially after actually hearing them. A fellow Head-Fi member from Vienna, James444, kindly agreed to borrow me the 1601 for an in-depth look.
So here’s what went through my head from minute one with the Final Audio 1601, uncensored, and in chronological order… bear with me, it gets somewhat more coherent towards the end.
MEETING JAMES444 AT CAFE RITTER, MARIAHILFER STRASSE
Oh boy, of course do they come in an ostentatious velvet jewel case. Let’s take a look inside…
Whoa, nice satined metal. Damn, they are huge. And heavy. How can they stay in one’s ears?
Those vent holes in different sizes are a nifty touch. They look great. How did they drill those microscopic holes? Lasers? Alien technology?
Those silicon tips sure look weird, only small and medium. And vented. And white. Or probably yellow, soon enough.
Oh boy, they didn’t put any thought in the cable design at all. All style, no functionality. The metal looks like it will saw through the fabric sleeving in no time. No strain relief on the plug end either. Seen that noob mistake on V-Moda Vibes and other phones. They will learn once their customers start sending those things back.
AT HOME, DAY ONE
Time to put those monsters in my ears. Where the hell are the left/right markers? Interesting, there seem to be none.
Ok, let’s see… Thomas Newman is always a good starter. Let’s start flat and neutral. BBE off – check. Headsix on – check.
Holy crap, what’s wrong with those things? I’ve hardly ever heard an IEM as muddy and veiled as those. They sound like those orange Dealextreme OEM things for 4 bucks. I’ve heard they’re supposed to rest openly in one’s ears and not seal/isolate. Wonder if that is actually the right way to put them in. Let’s try some of the silicon tips instead of the plain metal nozzle.
Hmm, no improvement in clarity. Not sure what else changed. Let’s try some other tips, those with the holes.
Same results. … Oooookay.
But, but, … wait a minute. Wow, that soundstage is awesome. Damn, getting even better. Amazing, their stereo imaging is like open full-sized phones.
Anyways, where’s the bass? Thomas Newman uses those kettle drums for a reason in his orchestral pieces. On those phones it sounds like someone’s banging on a Tupperware container.
Etymotic ER-4 in white, FAD FI-DC1601SB in red. Graph courtesy of sonove.angry.jp
Let’s try some other tracks… hmm, hmm, here we go: Charlie Mingus, ‘Cryin’ Blues’. Ouch, poor Charlie is probably spinning in his grave now. At least the veil isn’t as in-your-face in that 1959 recording as in Newman’s crystal clear mixes. I guess those phones might make 64kbps Real Audio sound bearable.
Okay, almost got used to the veil, maybe some UK Garage next? … Damn, treble in that Lady Sovereign track is harsh and lifeless. No sibilance though. No bass either.
Maybe let’s try a real sibilance test – Bruno Coulais’ ‘End Titles’ from the ‘Coraline’ soundtrack. That one is verging on too bright on almost any decent IEM… Interesting, no sibilance on the 1601 as well, but a kind of crude treble rendition lacking detail and ‘air’. Quite rolled off, not sparkly. … But there’s that awesome soundstage again. Hmmm. Bad – yet still interesting in some aspects. … They are able to sound somewhat punchy with some material, or at least certain midrange frequencies. Bass impact is like a wet noodle though.
Maybe I give James444’s rig a spin, see how the Sony stick player and the bass boost on the Graham Slee amp fare with these phones.
Hmm, that Voyager amp looks kinda plasticky and huge with the Hammond enclosure and the cheap switches. It sounds decent though, albeit a bit hissy with the 1601. What’s that? The opamp sweeps/oscillates when no sound is playing… oh good, it stopped. The Voyager's volume control works very well, contrary to my Headsix's crackling imbalanced one.
Let’s see what stuff he’s got on the Sony… 20th century classical … then some stuff I don’t know, Trio Something Something … Shpongle. Ah, heard that name before, something Trance-y, if I remember correctly. Ah yes, bass and layers and stuff. Let’s turn the Voyager’s loudness off. … Meh, anemic. The 1601 can’t get any muddier anyways; the bass/treble boost actually helps quite a bit to inject some life into them.
I wonder how the BBE Mach3Bass preset on my S9 sounds in comparison. It’s a rather nice phase-corrected bass boost and might be comparable with the Voyager’s implementation.
Hmm, sure helps as well. Not as subtle as the Voyager boost, tighter in a way. Probably because it hits lower, around 70Hz, if I remember correctly. Let’s try BBE ViVA. … Nope, not so great results. Well, at least not with that track. I guess the only way to really ‘fix’ those IEMs is with a professional multi-band parametric EQ.
Opeth, now that’s a good idea. … Or maybe not. That treble seriously hurts, without being sibilant. It’s just too much of the wrong frequencies, and completely in-your-face.
I should ask James444 for how long he used those phones. Maybe they just need a serious amount of ‘burn in’ – more than any other phone ever needed?
Meh, enough of that. These IEMs suck, I hate them. I need to hear music over something decent, like Sennheiser CX300. Haha, rimshot. Or maybe I should just go to bed.
Might be useful to measure the Voyager with RMAA, now that I heard it yesterday. … Whoa, quite sub-par crosstalk, no wonder I didn’t hear the usual increase in stereo separation as with other quality amps – but the 1601 are really good in that aspect anyways, especially for an IEM. The loudness contour of the amp is quite beefy. Not a wimpy, barely noticeable bass boost like on the FiiO E5 or iBasso T4.
Since I’m on a roll, I guess I’m putting the Sony stick player through RMAA as well. … Grrrr, effin’ MTP junk. Don’t you dare messing up my PC, you hear me? … Ah good – the annoying MTP mode can be switched to MSC in device manager. Much better. Nice Sony. … Or not? You don’t like WAV files? What kind of player are you? Guess I have to convert the RMAA test files to MP3 then…
Maybe first I’m gonna listen to that Sony on its own, with my UE11 for a change. … Oh yeah, that’s a good sounding player. Top notch, congrats Sony. Even the bass booster sounds decent – albeit quite huge.
Now it’s really time to run the Sony through RMAA as well. … Interesting, no loudness shape as I actually expected from a Sony – totally linear even with low impedances. Maybe Sony only puts that loudness curve on their pricier, bigger players, to make them sound more ‘awesome’ right out of the box. Anyways, that little stick is a really good player with excellent crosstalk behavior, no bass roll-off, and other decent specs. And it sounds that way, better than any Cowon played flat, and maybe a smidgen above the Sansa Clip+ in regards to stereo imaging. Needless to say, the Voyager amp degrades the nice soundstage a bit with its not so great channel separation.
James 444 replied to my PM. So the 1601 have about 80 hours of playtime in total. They probably shouldn’t change overly much anymore. Too bad, I guess. Time to listen to these things again, after all these RMAA detours.
Once again, with the humongous loudness curve of the Voyager, the 1601 sound tolerable. At least Marc Shaiman’s ‘Addams Family’ soundtrack does. Not really good, but not bad either. … Anyways, I guess that’s not the reason why one would consider buying IEMs for almost 900 bucks – to enjoy them only with the help of a fancy CMOY with a built-in loudness curve. But one can’t know that beforehand.
Somehow they’re a paradox, alright – in this specific setup they are able to sound punchy and dynamic despite being lifeless and muddy at the same time. How can they sound that not-so-good kind of ‘flat’ when their frequency response is all over the place?
Gonna plug my Clip+ into the Voyager, since it’s basically the same sound quality as the Sony stick. Might use my ridiculous Qables nonsense thing as well. If this is not the right occasion to use some oxygen-free blah-blah braided yadda-yadda silver yakkety-yak, then I don’t know what is.
After some time one forgets about the mud and can actually enjoy some music on these things without getting annoyed by all their often glaring flaws. Just don’t change to any other phone and make a direct AB comparison, or all is lost. … Oh damn, there’s one of those songs again. Treble that’s like driving a railroad spike through my eardrums. I forgot about the veil, but they had to remind me of their treble. Granted, that’s with the Voyager loudness – but other tracks sounded ok.
And then there’s that glorious spacious soundstage again, despite the Voyager amp’s crosstalk… why, oh why didn’t Final Audio manage to give those phones anything else – anything that would actually justify their insane price? The stereo imaging and dynamics can be awesome, and some tracks sound really nice – but that’s like 20% awesome vs. 80% awful in the grand scheme.
Been using them in the kitchen while preparing some yummy ‘Caldo de Piranha’. I took care of the 1601 and was aware of them being in my ears all the time, and I made sure not to make a wrong move with my head. Don’t want that manly bling to hit the floor. They might look as ostentatious as a Rolex, but I’m not the one giving them a physical durability test. My job here is just to nag and complain about their inner values.
Yeah, not too dense classical material and some light jazz mostly works with those things, with the loudness curve help of the Voyager. Too much strings or brass at once, and they’re overwhelmed, they crap out again. … Oh, there’s some lovely treble for once, nice nylon string guitars in an Opeth track. Vocals sound nasal though. It’s ‘Coil’, the opening track of Opeth’s latest album ‘Watershed’. … And now the female vocals sound really good, detailed, textured, airy. Much better than the male vocals before. Unbelievable how these phones can be so all over the place, even within a single music track.
Wow, that old UB40 track, ‘King’, sounds really nice. The bass line is situated mostly in the midbass regions, and it’s fat and forward sounding. The 1601 doesn’t struggle with it as it does with deeper bass lines. It has some kind of hollow, echo-y characteristic, deviating from how this certain bass usually sounds, but it’s interesting. Rest of the frequency spectrum is rather nicely balanced for this one track. Hi-hats and saxophone of this track are obviously in some of the sweet-spot regions of the 1601’s rollercoaster frequency scale, not in the peaks or valleys.
Clutch’s ‘Animal Farm’ as a follow-up track is like a frying pan to the face, however. The mud and veil hits really hard compared to the previous UB40 track. Dense distorted guitars seem to be an absolute no-no for these IEMs. Note to self: They can’t even reproduce one sludgy electric guitar properly, don’t ever try two at once. Clutch plays dirty rock, indeed – but not that kind of dirty.
UB40 still sounding good, this time the track ‘12 Bar’ came up in the shuffled playlist. A Warsaw Village Band interlude sounded great as well – and with great I mean something along the lines of ‘almost live’ music. This was a field recording of an old man and his fiddle. Too bad it’s so hit or miss on these IEMs. One can get the same ‘almost live’ feeling from a Sennheiser HD650 or something similar – in better overall quality, with better comfort, for a lower price. Not to mention you don’t need a heavy loudness curve to make the HD650… not suck.
Measured some of the S9/i9’s BBE presets. They’re all loudness-curved to a certain extent, with varying bass levels, but the Voyager adds more treble than any of them. In some cases the treble on the Voyager makes the 1601 a bit too painful to listen to. Might try a S9 custom EQ curve later on. Some of the BBE presets sound similar to the Voyager’s loudness with the 1601, some sound a bit better to my ears. Just takes some time to get accustomed to the different curves. It’s all about ‘getting accustomed’ with the 1601 anyways. If you hear stuff long enough you lose all points of reference and you can enjoy most things.
My ears are starting to hurt. Heavy things and their vented weirdo silicon tips grating in my ears. … Aha! Those rings on the one phone’s cable entry are the L/R indicators. Subtle. Well, took me only a day to notice them. … Going to plug the 1601 into my AudioFire on my PC. Enough with the wimpy portable stuff. These IEMs aren’t really portable anyways. Transportable, maybe. With insurance.
I know what would be fun. Let’s try some binaural recordings to lighten the mood. Those should work well with what the 1601 is able to do. Just needs a healthy dose of studio-quality BBE D82 via Winamp/VST. … Oh yeah, Cereni Matches sound even scarier than I remembered. Virtual Haircut is fun as well.
OK, back to real music. … Mmh, with a borderline insane dose of BBE D82 enhancement it sure sounds quite appealing as well. Different than on the portable players, but interesting. Photek’s ‘Seven Samurai’ has that weird echo-y midbass as well. Too bad that track goes down to almost 20Hz, usually. The 1601 don’t seem to go deeper than 80Hz or so. That is already with BBE Lo Contour at level 9. Without BBE this drum’n’bass track is just a mess of meh-sounding midrange.
Another bass heavy track – this time Dabrye’s ‘So Scientific’ – and it’s certain: the 1601 add that weird echo, a weird texture, and a one-note-ish character to pretty much every bass heavy tune I’ve tried. The ‘texture’ could actually mean the driver is trying to move too much air for its own good. Could be port/vent noises from some of the holes drilled into the IEM’s housing?
Some notes played by the saxophone in the studio version of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ pierce my ears, others appear normal. With and without BBE D82, doesn’t matter. Peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys… Enough of that, I’m off to bed, re-tuning my ears’ perceptiveness.
Just when I’m about to pull the phones of my ears, I notice static crackling from them. Does the nylon sleeving of the cable not agree with my jacket, or the soles of my shoes? Well, I have the gut feeling they will have to release an upgraded ‘v2’ cable soon anyways… Good night.
Recreated something similar to the loudness curve of the Voyager on my trusty PLParEQ, just with a not rolled-off bass that goes straight down to 20Hz. It works somewhat better than BBE D82 with the 1601, at least with fresh ears on a new day. The phones are already so artificially sounding, they don’t need to be souped up with even more psychoacoustic trickery. A simple yet efficient parametric EQ works well.
Makes me think of all the ‘purist audiophiles’ who would never touch an EQ – because it’s like, totally, way not natural, and not, like, how the artist intended it to be heard, dude. I pity the fools – especially if they consider going for these Final Audio IEMs. Cthulhu have mercy on their ears.
Makes me also wonder about Final Audio as a business. Obviously they sell one amp, one variant of speakers, one ridiculously advertised snake oil cable, a pack of batteries… and then some IEMs. They must have great research facilities and a highly skilled staff of specialized engineers to conceive all these acoustically and electronically rather demanding products. Or maybe I should just stop being sarcastic.
In other news, my brain got accustomed to the 1601’s muddy veil even more than on the second day. It’s like the five stages of grief with those phones – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Only, everything at once, or in what particular order?
Amon Düül II’s ‘She Came Through The Chimney’ sounds good, clarity doesn’t matter much with that old 1970ies hippie stuff, and the almost exaggerated spaciousness is what makes up for a lot of issues. PLParEQ helps a lot.
Let’s stay with some awesome cheesy prog for a moment longer. In Genesis’ ‘White Mountains’ Peter Gabriel’s voice gains a texture with the EQed 1601 that isn’t there on other phones or speakers. It sounds interesting, for the lack of a better word – somewhat silky, yet with something like added tube-distortion harmonics. It sure isn’t there in the recording, it’s something added by the phones. As a result, the hi-hats get smeared by the voice’s overtones; they’re not as defined as I know them to be. Anyways, not too bad, and a quite novel aspect. I guess I’d have had much stronger negative feelings about that track’s rendition if I had heard it on my first day with the 1601’s. But it’s kind of funny hearing something added to a track one has known well for years. Like an involuntary ‘remastered edition’. The brain is a mysterious lump of cells. Fifth stage of grief?
Leo Kottke’s ‘The Last of The Arkansas Greyhounds’ sounds great. Excellent rendition of a solo 12-string guitar, very… liquid and effortless sounding, for the lack of better words. On that note: I think a good sounding track should be the final one before I remove the 1601 from my ears a last time.
Ah, what the hell, one more round. These phones are quite predictable in some ways, so let’s just play a few more tracks that don’t give them much to struggle with. At last, I want to enjoy them for what they are. … Anything from Kronos Quartet – yep. Arvo Pärt’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ – yep. Iannis Xenakis’ ‘Tetras’ – yep. Luigi Nono’s ‘Polifonica’ – yep. … Okay, that’s that, they can handle those minimal tracks and make them sound interesting, euphonic, and appealing in a way – again, only with loudness contour engaged.
It seems there’s nothing more to find out about these phones for me. What, you were expecting some plot twists in this write-up? Or maybe even a conclusion? Sorry to disappoint. But I did warn you at the beginning that these were incoherent ramblings after all.
Ok, maybe a conclusion, nevertheless: One can hardly approach an irrational product like these phones with logic. At least I can’t. As far as I can see there is actually no valid reason for these things to exist – but there obviously is always a niche market for any product, no matter how impudent, impractical, and imperfect. They’re no real IEMs, they’re no full-sized headphones – however, they share some of the bad aspects of both worlds, and a few of the positive ones too. Many full sized phones can do most things better than the 1601, for a better price. Results with these IEMs are very inconsistent, ranging from a very satisfying ‘almost live’ feeling with some tracks to an almost unbearably muddy, nasal, and/or crude/painful reproduction with others. Without some serious loudness EQing they’re just plain bad in my opinion. Shigzeo and James444 are right – with a decent EQ they can be made into something that can sound very interesting and novel with some music, but unfortunately results vary a lot.
I’m almost glad I didn’t hear the even more extortionate $2000 variant of these obscure things… Who am I kidding? Actually I’d love to hear the 2 kilobucks version, so I could shoot my mouth off even more.
Bye-bye, Final Audio Design FI-DC1601SB. Meeting you was definitely very enlightening.
Thanks you very much, James444, for giving me the chance to listen to these controversial things. I've noticed you approach these phones yourself in a rational way, and I see you’re a cool guy – judging only by the music on the MP3 player you borrowed me, of course. Just kidding, meeting you in person was very nice.
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